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Cygnus Spacecraft Departs the Space Station: Here's the Awesome Science It's Doing

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The Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo ship S.S. Gene Cernan is released from the International Space Station via robotic arm in this photo by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik taken during release operations on Dec. 6, 2017. The Cygnus delivered 7,700 lbs. (3,500 kilograms) of supplies to the station in November.

HOUSTON — Orbital ATK’s Cygnus spacecraft departed the International Space Station (ISS) this morning (Dec. 6), on its way to do some bonus science before burning up in Earth’s atmosphere after a successful cargo delivery mission.

Space.com learned about the spacecraft’s possibilities as a science vessel (it will release 14 minisatellites after leaving the station) and potential future journey to deep space at a talk given by Frank DeMauro, vice president and general manager of Orbital ATK’s Advanced Programs Division, here at SpaceCom 2017 yesterday (Dec. 5).

This Cygnus vehicle, called the S.S. Gene Cernan in honor of the late NASA astronaut who was the last person to walk on the moon, delivered more than 7,700 lbs. (3,500 kilograms) of cargo to the station in November, including about 1,900 lbs. (860 kg) of science experiments and tech demonstrations — plus some Thanksgiving dinner and other holiday goodies. Before Cygnus’ departure today at 8:11 a.m. EST (1311 GMT), the space station crew filled it with trash that will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. [In Photos: Orbital ATK’s OA-8 Cygnus Launch to Space Station]

The spacecraft detached from the station yesterday morning but stayed connected to the station’s robotic arm until its release today. Next, the spacecraft will fly into a higher orbit than the space station and release small, experimental satellites called cubesats.

“This mission, we’re actually flying 14 cubesats; that’s by far more than we’ve done before,” DeMauro said during the SpaceCom presentation. “We’ll depart the ISS early in the morning, and then throughout the day, at three discrete times, we’ll actually deploy three different bunches of the cubesats. That’s important for the cubesat industry; we’ve done deployments below the ISS,” but by releasing them higher up, “you can give those cubesats a lot more life.” 

Cygnus has run other experiments after leaving the space station in the past, DeMauro added; for instance, Orbital ATK has administered spacecraft fire safety experiments to test how things burn in space far from any vulnerable crew. On this mission, the space station crew also got to make use of the extra space Cygnus provided by setting up and running an experiment while it was berthed.

The spacecraft won’t stay in orbit for long after releasing the cubesats, but DeMauro said the company is considering how to let Cygnus linger and do science long after its official mission is complete.

“One thing we’re looking at is adding more capability to Cygnus, like a free-fire capability,” DeMauro said. “We’ll fly away from the ISS. We’ll actually fly around for quite some time — up to a year or so on orbit, as opposed to just a couple of weeks after we leave the ISS.

“That affords customers the opportunity to get time and space on a mission where the primary mission has been completed, probably offering reduced cost to those customers so they can fly their sensors or other experiments on orbit and be able to get valuable data for a long period of time,” he added. Companies could even use Cygnus to take an experiment away from the space station, run it and bring it back to the station for the crew to analyze, he said. And spots on the outside of the spacecraft could provide space to install additional sensors and experiments.

A Cygnus spacecraft acts as Orion’s habitat module near the moon.

Credit: Orbital ATK

As part of NASA’s NextSTEP-2 program, Orbital ATK is also developing a spacecraft based on Cygnus that would journey much farther — even up into orbit near the moon.

“Cygnus as designed is designed for low Earth orbit operations, including cargo,” DeMauro told Space.com. “But a lot of the fundamental building blocks come from our geosynchronous satellite product line, which typically is high-radiation and can actually have a lot longer life.

“We’re looking at how to take a derivative of the Cygnus vehicle and be able to use it out in cislunar space, either as a habitat for the Orion crew once they’re out there, as a logistics module to bring supplies back and forth [or] a scientific test bed to house scientific experiments,” he added.

To get Cygnus fit for more distant flight, engineers would have to add more radiation shielding, as well as shielding for the spacecraft’s avionics systems to help them last longer, DeMauro said. Plus, that crucial machinery would probably have to move; right now, it’s in a spot where it’d be impossible for the crew to reach to swap out a failed unit, he said.

“We think that Cygnus, as it’s built right now, with some modifications that we’re working on now through the NextSTEP program, can be an actual affordable cislunar habitat … and that we can get up there a little bit faster than waiting for the whole program with [NASA’s] Deep Space Gateway,” DeMauro said.

Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com

Space.com is the premier source of space exploration, innovation and astronomy news, chronicling (and celebrating) humanity's ongoing expansion across the final frontier. We transport our visitors across the solar system and beyond through accessible, comprehensive coverage of the latest news and discoveries. For us, exploring space is as much about the journey as it is the destination. So from skywatching guides and stunning photos of the night sky to rocket launches and breaking news of robotic probes visiting other planets, at Space.com you’ll find something amazing every day.

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'Stargate Origins' Brings Classic Sci-Fi Back Tonight

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Mars Meteorite Will Return to the Red Planet with NASA Rover

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Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission holds a slice of a meteorite scientists have determined came from Mars. This slice will likely be used here on Earth for testing a laser instrument for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover; a separate slice will go to Mars on the rover.

A chunk of rock that was once part of Mars, but landed on Earth as a meteorite, will return to the Red Planet aboard a NASA rover set to launch in 2020

The meteorite, known as Sayh al Uhaymir 008 (SaU008) was found in Oman in 1999, but geologists determined that it likely originated on Mars, according to a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Scientists think collisions between Mars and other large bodies in the solar system’s early days sent chunks of the Red Planet into space, where they might wander for eons before falling onto Earth’s surface.  

Now, NASA scientists are using the meteorite to calibrate an instrument that will fly on the Mars 2020 rover, which is scheduled to drop down on the Red Planet’s surface and collect rock samples that could one day be returned to Earth. One of the rover’s main goals is to evaluate the potential habitability of ancient and present-day Mars. [How NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover Will Work (Infographic)]

The meteorite is being used to calibrate an instrument called the SHERLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman and Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals), which will use techniques often used in forensic science to identify chemicals in the Martian rock samples, in features as thin as a human hair.

A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.

A close-up of a meteorite that likely came from Mars.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The researchers will study the meteorite on Earth, where they are able to make sure their instruments are producing a correct analysis of the rock, and understand what features of the rock are perceptible to their instruments. When the rover settles onto Mars, researchers can once again use the rock to make sure their instruments are working as they should be, before pointing them at features of the Martian surface. 

“We’re studying things on such a fine scale that slight misalignments, caused by changes in temperature or even the rover settling into sand, can require us to correct our aim,” said Luther Beegle, principal investigator for SHERLOC, in the statement. “By studying how the instrument sees a fixed target, we can understand how it will see a piece of the Martian surface.”

There are only about 200 confirmed Martian meteorites that have been found on Earth, according to the statement. The SaU008 meteorite comes from London’s Natural History Museum, which lends out hundreds of meteorites (most of them not from Mars) every year for scientific studies. The SHERLOC team needed a Martian meteorite that was robust enough to endure the journey to Mars without flaking or crumbling. (Launch from Earth and entry into the Martian atmosphere are both very strenuous events for everything on board.) The rock also “needed to possess certain chemical features to test SHERLOC’s sensitivity. These had to be reasonably easy to detect repeatedly for the calibration target to be useful,” according to the statement.  

A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.

A slice of a Martian meteorite undergoes oxygen cleaning to remove organics. This slice will remain on Earth to be used for testing and calibrating instruments.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Usually, instruments like SHERLOC are calibrated with a variety of materials including rock, metal and glass. And Mars meteorites have been used for instrument calibration in the past. In fact, another instrument aboard the Mars 2020 rover, called SuperCam, will be adding a Mars meteorite to NASA’s calibration target, according to the statement. And while this would be the first Mars meteorite to return to the surface of the Red Planet, NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, which orbits the Red Planet, carries a chunk of a Martian meteorite.

SHERLOC will carry other materials from Earth in addition to Su008, including materials that could be used to make a spacesuit for use on Mars. Observations of how the material withstands the radiation, atmosphere and temperature variations on Mars will provide valuable information for possible crewed trips to the Red Planet.  

“The SHERLOC instrument is a valuable opportunity to prepare for human spaceflight as well as to perform fundamental scientific investigations of the Martian surface,” Marc Fries, a SHERLOC co-investigator and curator of extraterrestrial materials at Johnson Space Center, said in the statement. “It gives us a convenient way to test material that will keep future astronauts safe when they get to Mars.”

Follow Calla Cofield @callacofield. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Kepler Space Telescope Discovers 95 More Alien Planets

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Planets around other stars are the rule rather than the exception, and there are likely hundreds of billions of exoplanets in the Milky Way alone. NASA’s Kepler space telescope has found more than 2,400 alien worlds, including a new haul of 95 planets announced on Feb. 15, 2018.

The exoplanet discoveries by NASA’s Kepler space telescope keep rolling in.

Astronomers poring through data gathered during Kepler’s current extended mission, known as K2, have spotted 95 more alien planets, a new study reports. 

That brings the K2 tally to 292, and the total haul over Kepler’s entire operational life to nearly 2,440 — about two-thirds of all the alien worlds ever discovered. And more than 2,000 additional Kepler candidates await confirmation by follow-up observations or analysis. [7 Greatest Exoplanet Discoveries by NASA’s Kepler (So Far)]

Kepler launched in March 2009, on a mission to help scientists determine just how common rocky, potentially habitable worlds such as Earth are throughout the Milky Way. For four years, the spacecraft stared continuously at about 150,000 stars, looking for tiny dips in their brightness caused by the passage of planets across their faces.

This work was highly productive, as noted above. But in May 2013, the second of Kepler’s four orientation-maintaining “reaction wheels” failed, and the spacecraft lost its superprecise pointing ability, bringing the original mission to a close.

But mission managers figured out a way to stabilize Kepler using sunlight pressure, and the spacecraft soon embarked on its K2 mission, which involves exoplanet hunting on a more limited basis, as well as observing comets and asteroids in our own solar system, supernovas and a range of other objects and phenomena.

For the new study, researchers analyzed K2 data going all the way back to 2014, zeroing in on 275 “candidate” signals.

“We found that some of the signals were caused by multiple star systems or noise from the spacecraft,” study lead author Andrew Mayo, a Ph.D. student at the Technical University of Denmark’s National Space Institute, said in a statement. “But we also detected planets that range from sub-Earth-sized to the size of Jupiter and larger.”

Indeed, 149 of the signals turned out to be caused by bona fide exoplanets, 95 of which are new discoveries. And one of the new ones is a record setter.

“We validated a planet on a 10-day orbit around a star called HD 212657, which is now the brightest star found by either the Kepler or K2 missions to host a validated planet,” Mayo said. “Planets around bright stars are important because astronomers can learn a lot about them from ground-based observatories.”

The new study was published today (Feb. 15) in The Astronomical Journal.

Follow Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall and Google+. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook or Google+. Originally published on Space.com.

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Russian Cargo Ship Delivers 3 Tons of Supplies to Space Station

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